You probably heard "drink your milk" all the time from your parents when you were a kid, and you knew it was good for you. But now you may opt for sodas or sports drinks, and other than adding a splash to your morning Wheaties, you don't give much thought to milk.
But your parents were right to make you drink milk when you were little. It's loaded with calcium, a mineral vital for building strong bones and teeth.
Why Do I Need Calcium?
Bones grow rapidly during adolescence, and teens need enough calcium to build strong bones and fight bone loss later in life. But many don't get the recommended daily amount of calcium. In addition, people who smoke or drink soda, caffeinated beverages, or alcohol may get even less calcium because those substances interfere with the way the body absorbs and uses calcium.
Bone calcium begins to decrease in young adulthood and people gradually lose bone density as they age — particularly women. Teens, especially girls, whose diets don't provide the nutrients to build bones to their maximum potential are at greater risk of developing the bone disease osteoporosis, which increases the risk of fractures from weakened bones.
Calcium also plays an important role in muscle contraction, transmitting messages through the nerves, and the release of hormones. If people aren't getting enough calcium in their diet, the body takes calcium from the bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones.
If you got enough calcium and physical activity when you were a kid and continue to do so as a teen, you'll enter your adult years with the strongest bones possible.
Looking for ways to up your dietary calcium intake? Here are some easy ones:
Put some cheddar in your omelet.
Pack a yogurt in your lunch.
Add white beans to your favorite soups.
Add a slice of American, Swiss, or provolone to sandwiches.
Use whole-grain soft-taco shells or tortillas to make burritos or wraps. Fill them with eggs and cheese for breakfast; turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and light dressing for lunch; and beans, salsa, taco sauce, and cheese for dinner.
Create mini-pizzas by topping whole-wheat English muffins or bagels with pizza sauce and low-fat mozzarella or soy cheese.
Try whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese as an afternoon treat.
Dig into chili with red beans and cheese.
Eat low-fat or fat-free frozen yogurt topped with fruit.
Create parfaits with layers of plain yogurt, fruit, and whole-grain cereal.
You're never too old to enjoy a glass of ice-cold milk with a couple of cookies or graham crackers.
If You're Lactose Intolerant
Teens who are lactose intolerant don't have enough of the intestinal enzyme lactase that helps digest the sugar (lactose) in dairy products, and may have gas, bloating, cramps, or diarrhea after drinking milk or eating dairy products.
Fortunately, low-lactose and lactose-free dairy products are readily available, as are lactase drops that can be added to dairy products and tablets that can be taken to make dairy products tolerable. Hard, aged cheeses (such as cheddar) are also lower in lactose, and yogurts that contain active cultures are easier to digest and much less likely to cause lactose problems.
It can be a challenge to get enough calcium in a vegetarian diet that does not include dairy, but you can enjoy good sources of calcium such as dark green, leafy vegetables, broccoli, chickpeas, and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, soy and rice drinks, and cereals.
Other Considerations for Building Bones
Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, so it's important to get enough of this nutrient too. Made by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight, vitamin D is also found in fortified dairy and other products, fish, and egg yolks. If you are not getting enough vitamin D in your diet, your doctor may recommend a vitamin D supplement.
Exercise is very important to bone health. Weight-bearing exercises — such as jumping rope, jogging, and walking — can help develop and maintain strong bones. In fact, current scientific evidence suggests that for teens, exercise may be even more strongly linked to better bone health than calcium intake.
Although it's best to get the calcium you need through a calcium-rich diet, sometimes it may not be possible. Discuss calcium supplements with your doctor if you're concerned that you're not getting enough.